Last year's edition of Africa Fete, staged on the Kennedy Center's parking lot, presented four acts in 4 1/2 hours. This year the Afro-pop package tour played the 9:30 club and fit only three acts into the same amount of time, mostly due to an expansive performance by headliner Baaba Maal.
Although Maal is an expressive singer, he was only occasionally the focus of his troupe's music. With a dozen musicians and dancers joining him onstage, the Senegalese front man was frequently hidden or absent, and such songs as "African Woman" meandered through numerous musical digressions. Still, these digressions were often dynamic, especially when they emphasized the band's robust polyrhythms.
Opener Oliver Mtukudzi maintained a tidier balance between rhythm and melody. The veteran Zimbabwean musician emphasized songs from his recent U.S. debut CD, "Tuku Music," although he and his octet played them more forcefully than on the album. The percolating rhythms, sweetly high-pitched guitar and call-and-response vocals united elegantly on such songs as "Rirongere," which sounded both urgent and ebullient. Although many of Mtukudzi's songs address such grim topics as Africa's AIDS crisis, his music was irresistibly joyous.
In between was a set by American bluesman Taj Mahal and Mali's Toumani Diabate, whose recent "Kulanjan" album likens the former's guitar to the latter's kora, a lutelike 21-string instrument. The effect was often lost, however, because Lasana Diabate's balafon (a precursor of the xylophone) overwhelmed the other instruments.
Only the brave and strong could go up against the musical explosion of Africa Fete, but Thursday night at Blues Alley, Jerry Gonzalez & the Fort Apache Band unleashed a scalding hot set that keenly balanced the improvisational ingenuity of hard bop with thrusting Afro-Latin rhythms.
A magnificent trumpeter and an even more phenomenal percussionist, Gonzalez intoned each composition, derived mostly from the Miles Davis repertoire, with a forlorn blue-flamed muted-trumpet solo that was both lyrical and moody. Then suddenly the Fort Apache Band stormed out with blistering intensity; it seemed as if each band member had some personal vendetta to settle. Drummer Steve Berrios constantly constructed wonderfully intricate rhythmic patterns that propelled alto saxophonist Joe Ford's flinty, fractured passages and pianist Larry Willis's intriguing accompaniments with burning passion. The ensemble's ability to switch gears at the drop of a hat was amazing as Berrios and Gonzalez, slapping five
congas with blinding dexterity, injected rumba rhythms within the bop matrix.
The red-hot solos always retained high levels of invention, whether it was Willis's thought-provoking solo on "Eighty-One" or bassist Charles Fambrough's robust essay on "Footprints." Considering that Fort Apache has been together for nearly 13 years, the level of group empathy is sublime. Each member seemed to anticipate the others' lines, which often led to some exciting conversational antiphony.
The band simmered down momentarily on the smoldering ballad "Verdad Amarga," which highlighted Gonzalez's pensive trumpet. After Gonzalez delivered a sultry solo, Ford followed with an equally shimmering soprano sax solo. The rhythmic fire returned on a frisky take of Thelonious Monk's "Evidence," on which Willis displayed his keen inventiveness. While staying true to the composer's off-kilter rhythmic sensibilities, Willis avoided the trap of Monk mannerisms. Almost playing hopscotch with "Evidence," the Fort Apache Band ended its first set of a three-night engagement with relentless ebullience.